The following is a reproduction of the article which appeared in the
Garden Center Merchandising & Management magazine, March 2000, about Weston Gardens.
Sue and Randy Weston didn’t know they were creating a Texas gardening hotspot when they began Weston Gardens in Bloom in 1984. Since then they have shaped some of the state’s most acclaimed gardens and have introduced North Texans to a broad palette of perennials and natives.
Starting as a landscape firm, Weston Gardens opened its retail division in 1986. The first few years they struggled, trying to sell plants that were available at most other garden centers and chain stores. Randy saw a trend in the rest of the country toward perennials, natives and cottage gardening, so he and Sue decided to take the company in that direction. Since 1988, they’ve been refurbishing an overrun Fort Worth estate, where they showcase plants able to withstand the area’s tough conditions and create colorful, lush landscapes.
“Texas always seems to be one of the last places to pick up trends,” Randy said. “It was tough going early on. We would dump more perennials than we would sell in the late ‘80s. We didn’t know if we’d hit on something or not.”
It was around this time that they began to develop their display gardens that have now reached 4 acres. They found that the way to sell these plants is by showing examples.
RE-CREATING AN ESTATE
The display gardens sit on a 10-acre plot that was formerly one of Tarrant County’s premier estates. From the
1920s to early 1960s, the home of Leon and Peggy Bandy was known as Dripping Springs and was a playground for the
area’s elite. It was landscaped with formal gardens with precisely trimmed arborvitae, juniper and holly hedges and
was often the site of Depression-era parties.
These grounds are across the street from the Westons’ 7-acre retail facility and came up for sale in 1988.
“We wanted to find a better property to relocate, but it turns out the best place was right across the street,”
Sue said. “At first we were hesitant to buy. There is a house there and we were unsure we wanted to live where we
do business. We wanted some separation. But we’re very pleased with how things have turned out.”
When the Westons took over, the property was completely overgrown with briers, hackberries and other weeds. Refurbishing the site was labor intensive – Randy compares it to an archaeological dig. Shovelful by shovelful, he would turn up more limestone paths and walkways. It took a year just to see what he had to work with.
The first feature to be redone was a brick T-shaped lily pond and adjacent limestone arbor. Rather than duplicating the Bandys’ formal gardens, Randy landscaped with a softer, more natural design. He calls it “English gardens, Texas style.”
Hedged conifers were replaced with perennials such as Echinacea purpurea, oxeye daisy and Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’. Once completed, the Westons could show customers mature examples of perennials and how they can be used in combination. Sales began to rise.
Garden refurbishment continued gradually as money became available. The Westons never borrowed money for these projects.
They added new natural-looking water gardens complete with waterfalls and koi. Around almost every corner a pond or fountain draws visitors into another area of the garden.
The site has been recognized as one of the best gardens in the state and has been written about in both Southern Living and Texas Highways magazines.
Still in the planning stage is the refurbishment of a cable/wood suspension bridge crossing a creek to a 200-foot limestone structure that resembles a ship. During Prohibition, the Bandys would frequently entertain on the ship and parties there included bands, drinking and gambling.
“We’re not letting people back there but it’s still a big draw for us. Customers like to look across the creek at it,” Randy said. “The bridge and ship are a little unsafe now, especially for children. We’ll probably fix it up in the future, but for now I sleep better at night knowing people can’t get to them.”
Maintaining the gardens is an ever-present task for the company. But since the gardens are so key to sales, this
chore cannot be ignored.
“It’s like the relatives are about to come over to visit all the time. You have to keep everything as perfect as
you can,” Randy said. “If the gardens were just for our own enjoyment, we’d let a few things go, but we can’t afford
to do that.”
Every morning Randy walks the gardens to see what plants are coming into peak color. He makes sure these
plants are stocked close to the retail-area entrance and in high-traffic areas so customers can find them.
Since most customers are unfamiliar with many of the perennials at the gardens, signs are very important. They are written and laminated at the store and contain cultural information specific to North Texas.
“It’s very important for the signs to be specific to this part of the country. That’s why we make our own,” Randy said. “Information from a national supplier may say a plant needs full sun, but here it needs afternoon shade.”
To prevent customers from removing signs from the gardens, the Westons make clipboards available to people as they enter the gardens. They can jot down plant names so they remember them once they return to the retail area.
SEMINARS DRAW HUNDREDS
Some of the biggest sales periods for Randy and Sue Weston are the 10 or 12 weekends a year they host gardening seminars at Weston Gardens in Bloom in Fort Worth, Texas. The talks are given by Randy and area or national experts and draw 50 – 200 people.
The Westons promote the seminar weekends, which include six to nine talks, in newspaper ads, on the company internet site and through direct mail. The mailing list contains 4,000 – 5,000 names of people who have signed up at the store.
The Westons offer many native plant varieties, but not natives exclusively. The North Texas plant palette should not be limited to these plants, Randy said.
“Why exclude plants that do well here just because they’re from another part of the world? You can’t be that narrow minded when there are so few plants that will thrive here in our heat. If you find something that works, you should use it,” Randy said.
North Texas summers can include months of high temperatures above 100 degrees F and little or no rain. Because gulf breezes keep humidity high, night temperatures frequently remain above 80 degrees F, never giving plants a chance to recuperate from the heat. In winter, cold fronts can bring temperatures down to the teens or single digits, so plants must have considerable cold tolerance as well.
North Texas soil pH ranges from neutral to high 8s and its texture can be rocky or heavy clay. Raised beds amended with organic material are almost a must for perennial gardens to thrive.
“I care about the plants we sell,” Randy said. “I don’t sell Indian hawthorn because I remember what the cold did to them in 1989. I won’t sell astilbe because I know it’s too hot here and they don’t do well in our alkaline soils.”
Many plants suitable to these conditions come from Asia, the Mediterranean and Australia. A good example is Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia, a Siberian native that takes to the Texas climate.
LIMITING NONCORE BUSINESS VENTURES
Sue and Randy Weston, owners of Weston Gardens in Bloom in Fort Worth, Texas, resist the urge to go into side businesses.
People frequently ask if the display gardens can be used for a wedding or if the Westons will open a restaurant. The Westons say 'no' for several reasons.
“Weddings are too busy and troublesome. They always want to have them during our busiest times,” Sue said. “You only have so many weekends during the spring and they account for the bulk of our sales. If someone is having a wedding, it tends to scare everyone else off.”
The Westons may start a small coffee bar in the garden center, but a full-blown restaurant is out of the question. It’s too far away from what they want to do with their lives.
“We got into the business because we love gardening,” Sue said. “If you get into too many sidelines the next thing you know you’re not in the business you wanted to be in.”
The Westons have also toned back an annual Easter festival for the same reason. The celebration used to include Easter egg hunts and other activities geared toward children. The event drew many people, but not the key people the Westons want to attract – gardeners.
“It actually scared away our core demographics,” Sue said. “They didn’t want to be around a large crowd of children. They would even call and ask, ‘You’re not going to have all those kids around at Easter again this year, are you?’”
Many of the Westons’ gardening and plant ideas come from their travels, including one trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. They would like to spend more time traveling overseas looking for new ideas.
Plant recommendations also come from other members of the industry. Randy said he gets many ideas from Harlan Hamernik, owner of Bluebird Nursery, Inc. in Clarkson, Nebraska.
Look for the Westons to offer this year something they haven’t in a long time – annuals. But don’t expect them to sell the same varieties they were once unsuccessful at selling.
They will be offering “throwback plants” that are suitable to cottage gardens such as cleome, cosmos and reseeding types of larkspur. Display-wise, they will be well segregated from the perennials so that customers will have no confusion between the two.
By Todd Davis
Garden center staff writer
Garden center magazine
© Copyright 2015 Weston Gardens in Bloom, Inc.